I’ve been thinking a lot about role models lately, specifically when it comes to women. And how it’s good for women to have them.
I remember looking around myself for a perfect role model (for life) when I was about 26 or so.
My own mom — who is a wonderful, smart, funny and positive person — still didn’t work as a role model for me. Why? Well, mostly because her generation had followed a different path than mine — their expectations were different, their definitions of success were different, and their financial obligations were different.
My generation (and what “my generation” is, is sort of hard to define, because I’m actually on the exact cusp of Gen X and the Baby Boomers. So I’m an “older Gen X” or a “younger Baby Boomer.”) Anyway, my generation had moms who mostly stayed home and took care of us. Or maybe it was just my neighborhood, I don’t know. But most of the kids I knew had stay-home moms. The moms all knew each other, and came to all our school functions, and all taught CCD (catechism) in a rotation around the neighborhood. My mom didn’t even drive — and she wasn’t the only mom who didn’t.
The kids who had moms who worked were called “latch-key kids” in the ’70s and ’80s and mostly complained that their moms worked.
But here’s what happened: All those kids grew up. And the girls realized that maybe they wanted to have careers also. Society was saying that “liberated” women should feel free to have careers (ever since we played our Marlo Thomas “Free To Be You and Me” records in the ’70s), so they planned to have careers. And went to school for them.
But then that generation of girls had their own kids. And around the time they turned 26 or 27 — and their kids were babies or toddlers or young graders — many thought: I don’t want this career. I want to stay home with my kids.
But by then, inflation demanded that two incomes were all but necessary to lead a middle-class life, and we women felt a little stuck. It became a decision not between having a career and being home with your kids, but between having enough money to live or being the mom you thought you should be. And single moms — gosh, they didn’t even have a choice. They had to work simply to live.
So even though women’s take-hold attitude in the work force seemed like a cool idea, it put the next generation in a weird quandry. It was a quandry of guilt. And we were in a definite position of having no role models. We looked left and right for the woman who “had it all” — who was in her dream career, her dream relationship, had healthy happy kids, and who managed to be the mother she always wanted to be.
And we found no one.
Because no one had tried all that before.
I remember looking around myself when I was 26 and landed on the 5th floor of The Orange County Register. Here I was, in the job I’d dreamed of (one of the top 10 newspapers in the country), but I was so unsettled. The job felt great. I loved that job (and stayed there for 7 years with some of the coolest people I’d ever know). But I still felt unsettled because I had a baby. And — much to my surprise — I wanted to stay home with him more than anything in the world. I remember driving to work with tears in my eyes after dropping him off at daycare. I remember having to sit in the parking lot for a few minutes to wipe my face, thinking this can’t be right. This is what I wanted, but it doesn’t feel right. …
So I kept looking around for the woman who “had it all.”
And, ultimately, I found her.
She was our department administrative assistant, Lynnette.
Lynnette was older than me, with three older kids: The oldest was in high school, and the other two probably in junior high and elementary at that time. She worked full time, but came in around 6 a.m. and was able to leave at 2 p.m. so she could be home with them when they got out of school. She worked a side job, translating, but it was something she could also do from home at night, so she could still be with them. But here’s the thing: Lynnette’s kids were great. She was a working mom, but arranged her schedule whenever she could, and her kids just seemed so terrific. I listened eagerly to all of her stories about how they operated as a family (her hubby worked at The Register, too) — how they spent time together, how they had dinner together, how they shopped at farmers markets together, how her kids would call her sometimes just to say hi — and I memorized her life. That was what I wanted. I wanted great kids like hers. And I wanted family time. Lynnette and her husband didn’t drive brand-new cars or spend money on tons of clothes or have the largest house in town — so I stopped wanting those things, too. I wanted her happy kids, and her great marriage, and her happy life, and her family time.
That’s when I realized that truth: You can’t “have it all.” (At least not at the same time.) Having a lot of money, having a perfect marriage, having tons of time with your kids, and having the career you always dreamed of — those things really can’t all happen simultaneously. So you pick and choose, whichever works for you at the time and whichever you need or want most at the time.
And Lynnette became my role model.
She also became the first person to encourage me to stay home with my kids if I wanted to. That was a scary thought, too, because my parents had just paid for this expensive education, but she said if you want to stay home with your kids, make it happen, even if it’s five years down the line. Even if it’s eight years down the line. Even if they’re all in high school. Because they always need you. So any time you can give them — even if it’s just for a year or two, or even if it’s just for a month — go for it.
That was the best advice I ever got.
I wasn’t able to make it happen for another seven years (realistically, financially), but then I finally did. And I wasn’t able to do it forever, but I made it the best eight years of my life.
Like Lynnette, I do what I can, when I can. I work when I can, and spend as much time with my kids as I can. I don’t drive fancy cars or have the biggest house in town. But I got my marriage/family time. And I got my great kids.
And I’m always going to have to thank Lynnette for that. She was a great role model.
What about you? Did you have a role model when you were in your 20s? Someone who exemplified the kind of life you wanted? And (if you’re my age, and a woman) do you remember having trouble finding that person?